Three Chicago Institutions Linked to Free Expression

Three Chicago Institutions Linked to Free Expression

Chicago culture is so thick that local institutions are a dime a dozen. Some of my favorites are Ravinia, the Map Room, the Lyric Opera, the Lincoln Park Zoo, and Vincent P. Falk (the dude who wears bright suits and twirls on downtown bridges).

If you've been there and done that, there are three more Chicago institutions that may be less familiar.

The first is the annual Bughouse Square debate. It began in the 1910s as a place for labor movement leaders to speak their minds atop soapboxes. The speeches stopped in the 1960s, but were revived by the Newberry Library as an annual event in 1986. Every year since then, the library has organized a series of debates, administered awards, and held its annual book fair on one summer weekend.

Last year, I participated in the Main Debate at Bughouse Square. I went toe-to-toe on public sector collective bargaining with Kenzo Shibata, a staffer at the Chicago Teachers Union. I argued that public sector unions (unions of government employees) are completely different animals from the unions organized by employees of private companies. The main difference is citizens pay public employees to perform certain services on which government has monopolies (or close to them). These include streets and sanitation, public safety services, and public schools.

Public sector collective bargaining postures public servants against citizens who have no choice but to pay for their services. This makes it entirely inappropriate for public sector unions to strike if management doesn't meet their demands for increased wages and benefits.

Obviously, my position is arguable, and we had a spirited, fun debate on the topic that afternoon.

Another Chicago institution linked to lively discussions is the Lincoln Restaurant at 4008 N. Lincoln Avenue. This place is your standard Chicago neighborhood restaurant that makes good patty melts. Besides branding itself with a huge image of Illinois's most famous politician, it also hosts a number of discussion groups weekly. One is the Town Hall group, hosted by Rich Johns.

Another group that meets at the Lincoln Restaurant is the College of Complexes, our third institution.

The College of Complexes is a weekly free speech forum founded in 1951. Calling itself the "playground for people who think," the group covers all sorts of interesting topics, including "Ancient Aliens," Bronze Age anthropology, and, last Saturday, perhaps the most confusing subject of all: free markets.

I spoke before a room of about 30 middle-aged to older men (and a couple of women) about America's Future Foundation, a salon for young professionals that meets monthly in River North. Before we knew it, the discussion moved away from AFF and into a broader conversation on free markets.

College enrollees challenged me on my claims that free markets transmit ethical behavior (it's true), and that there's not some set bar under which it would be unfair to pay someone for work. (I also happen to believe there's no set bar over which it would be unfair to pay someone.) We also discussed income inequality (it's unjust only when government action causes it), and crony capitalism.

In fact, crony capitalism was probably the most discussed single topic of the evening. Many attendees were upset with the fact large corporations have the ability to essentially buy politicians and get them to bend the law. We discussed many examples, including Goldman Sachs, car manufacturers, and oil companies.

If there was any consensus that evening, it was that everyone believed the government takes actions that benefit the big guys at the expense of everyone else.

I ended my remarks with the idea that the more the government intervenes in the economy, the more opportunities there are for cronyism. And nobody wants that, least of all advocates of a true free market economy.

I'm really looking forward to discussing these ideas and many more on ChicagoNow. Feel free to ask me specific questions in the comments section any time.


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  • If you haven't acquainted yourself with Brooksley Born, you might take a look at her interview. It's available on Netflix and at She provides a great deal of food for thought on free markets without supervision.

    Personally, I think campaign reform; removing corporate personhood and strict limitations on running campaigns by dollar signs would go a long way in addressing the problem of cronyism and corruption.

  • In reply to Danie:

    Thanks, Danie. I'm familiar with her work and have seen the interview.

    One common misunderstanding about free market advocates is that they call for no regulation of the economy. Of course there must be regulation to protect property rights, ensure the regularity of trade, and address cases of fraud. It's when regulation gets excessive or becomes captured by those it seeks to regulate–the SEC is one example–that free marketeers cry foul.

    President Obama is addressing the regulatory problem superficially, but the real problem is not how big the regulatory bureaucracy is, but what it does.

    On campaign finance: People and groups of people are always going to find ways to help their preferred candidates. Restricting people from supporting campaigns is as futile as trying to prohibit alcohol or drugs. It will never work. What we need are rules that prevent politicians from helping their benefactors with other people's money once they get into office: eliminate subsidies, special tax breaks, and other forms of corporate welfare. Then it won't matter how much the rich guys give–there's no chance they're getting a reimbursement from taxpayers.

    Thanks, again, for the comment, and I hope to talk with you again soon.

  • I'm looking forward to reading your posts!

    I'm conflicted about public sector unions. As a libertarian, I value freedom of speech and freedom of association extremely highly. However, there is (almost) no question that public sector unions have used their unique positions in society to harm the public and enrich themselves. That said, I don't think there's necessarily a conflict in those two ideals.

    As a consequence of freedom of association, laws requiring union participation should be deemed unconstitutional (make everywhere "right to work") and so-called "agency fees" should be similarly declared unconstitutional. This would strike a huge blow to the unions' stranglehold on public sector employees.

    Basically, I'd like to see the government remove the special privileges that unions have obtained for themselves. These benefits are just the other side of the crony capitalism coin.

  • In reply to David:

    Thanks, David!

    Your comments are right-on. Libertarians don't support the idea of outlawing free associations of people, including unions. It's when these associations require membership (and payment of dues) when you have a certain job, or when unions have the power to demand more money from taxpayers (or else) that we raise the red flag.

    No group has the right to the money taxpayers send to their government. Neither business nor labor.

  • One of the institutions of Chicago is progressive and collectivist thought, packaged, branded and exported nation and world-wide,
    all the while growing up next to a vibrant, free enterprise institution.

    Required reading should be Friedrich von Hayek's, "The Road to Serfdom", followed by Eric Hoffer's "The True Believers". Then a dose of the "Federalist Papers".

    But I dream... instead we get "Dreams of my Father".

    In the 1960's and 1970's, the struggling conservative movement would say that "all bad things originated in Chicago". It has proven true. Exception being Milton Friedman.

    Chicago and Illinois have already arrived at the results of some of what you speak, and there is no inclination that the status quo will be changed. This state will implode. The laws of economics are pure and are true, and can only be subverted for a time.

    Good luck with the upstream swim. I just try to have fun with it. Otherwise, it would drive me crazy. (Crazy-er, maybe).

  • Richard, I am very pleased at your clear and concise evaluation of the damaging effects of public sector unions. As a private sector union member (IBEW), I have continually debated this issue with my union brothers who feel that efforts to change the public sector policy infringes upon our ability to obtain work and provide for our families (especially in this economic climate). The two are clearly different animals and should, as you stated, be treated as such. Nice job!

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    Thanks for putting me on to the College of Complexes. I didn't know about them until I read your blog.

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